Formidable: Arthur Flint’s War Against Tirpitz and the Kamikazes
By TERRY CROWDY
(Pen and Sword Maritime Press – £25)
ISBN 9781 1 39908 766 7
Your reviewer was initially slightly confused upon reading this book. The title indicates that the book is about one Arthur Flint and his wartime experiences whilst serving in HMS Formidable during the Second World War. In fact the book is more about Formidable’s operational experience while serving in the Atlantic, Arctic, Mediterranean and Pacific theatres with Arthur Flint joining the ship in 1944 as an officer’s steward as part of the ship’s Air Group. The author is Flint’s grandson and some of the vignettes of Flint’s service in the Royal Navy and the ship are a result of oral history relayed between grandfather and grandson.
The author is a well-established writer of military history with an expertise in the Napoleonic period. He has a fluent pen and the book combines episodes in Flint’s life from his origins in Essex to joining the Royal Navy as a hostilities only rating who was trained as a steward due to eye issues. Periods of Flint’s service are extrapolated by what life was like aboard an aircraft carrier. In fact, he left little record of his naval service apart from anecdotes and memories, shared with his grandson. For those not aware about life in the Navy during wartime including some of the customs and traditions of the service the author sketches them for readers: things like the rum ration, splicing the mainbrace, defaulters etc. Occasionally the author uses expressions that ring oddly to old naval hands such as referring to the ship’s galley as a kitchen and the wardroom as a lounge, but these are minor quibbles.
One other figure looms large in the story and that is her commanding officer for much of the tale: Captain Philip Ruck-Keene, Royal Navy (promoted to rear- admiral in 1946). He is portrayed as a hard driving captain seized with bringing his ship up to the highest operational standards he could. While he occasionally displays a dry sense of humour in the book, he is not portrayed as a particularly warm ship’s captain. But when he was under the command of Rear Admiral Sir Philip Vian in the Pacific, he was praised highly indeed for how he and his Air Group fought the ship. Vian flew his flag as in Formidable so the two knew each other well.
The operational history of the Illustrious-class aircraft carrier Formidable is well known and Crowdy covers it fully. From her unfortunate launching where she broke away from her cradle and ‘self-launched’ at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast where at least one worker and others were injured. The ship herself was not damaged and was commissioned in 1940. She went straight to war first with the Home Fleet chasing the Scheer and then in the Mediterranean where she took part in the action at Cape Matapan. She was deployed into Norwegian waters, was used to track the Tirpitz (ultimately bombed by RAF Lancasters). Carrier operations were always judged by the number of aircraft available and how they were deployed. Crowdy notes the creative tension that existed between the Air Group and ship’s staff. During a refit in Belfast in late 1943, Ruck-Keene believed that many of his ship’s company were being adversely affected by dockyard workers and dispersed a number of bad apples elsewhere as he tightened up discipline.
As the war in Europe ended many of the crew hoped that they would be sent home and demobbed, but Formidable was needed in the Pacific. The US Navy led by Admirals King, Nimitz and Halsey did not initially want British support as they mopped up in the Pacific but Churchill persuaded Roosevelt that they would be a welcome addition and indeed the British Pacific Force proved to be. Formidable was badly hit several times by Japanese Kamikazes during extensive operations but the ship was never out of action for more than a few hours. The only Victoria Cross won by a RCNVR officer was awarded posthumously to Lieutenant ‘Hammy’ Grey leading a dozen Corsairs flying off Formidable in an attack on Japanese warships in their home waters.
Crowdy is a very readable author and relays the challenges Formidable faced well. She had fought a tough war and saw a lot of action. The book includes many interesting photographs which give a flavour of what the ship and her company endured. There are also operational diagrams, basic footnotes, an extensive bibliography, and a useful index. Your reviewer was unsure at the beginning of the review whether this book should be recommended but as a primer to wartime life in the Royal Navy and the exploits of one famous ship, many general readers will find it of interest indeed. But the full story of Able Steward Flint will need to be found elsewhere.